Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants at Tower Theatre

There’s a good reason The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the most popular comedies in British theatre. It’s a very silly story about ridiculous people doing utterly implausible things, and yet for all its joyous irreverence, the play still has plenty to say about society, class and the judgments we make about each other based on little more than a name or birthplace.

It’s this last that most informs Pan Productions’ unique and memorable adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic. The company’s first production in English, its cast is made up entirely of immigrants whose first languages include French, Turkish and Greek. These actors may never have had to confess to being found in a handbag at Victoria Station, but they’ve all certainly had to explain and perhaps even justify where they come from, probably on more than one occasion. So it’s through their eyes that we see this very English comedy unfold, cucumber sandwiches and all, as friends Jack (Louis Pottier Arniaud) and Algernon (Duncan Rowe) pursue two women who know exactly what they want – and, more importantly, what they don’t – in a suitable husband.

There’s no denying that the vision of director Aylin Bozok is an unusual one, though that’s by no means a bad thing – after so many “traditional” versions of the play, a fresh take is more than welcome. The modern dress production retains Wilde’s script, albeit peppered with moments where the cast slip back into their native languages, but beyond that this interpretation bears little resemblance to the genteel Victorian drama we know. It’s still a comedy, yet visually and tonally the play is much darker than we’re used to; there’s a decidedly gothic feel to the production that’s unexpected, to say the least. The pace is also considerably slower, though there’s never any danger of the audience’s attention wandering – the deliberation that goes into each and every movement is fascinating, and ultimately proves to be a source of comedy in itself. (Who knew watching someone painstakingly lower themselves on to a sofa could raise so many laughs?)

Another intriguing, if slightly confusing, aspect is the suggestion that the characters, for all their wealth and social standing, have no control over their own story. Instead, that power lies with the omnipresent and slightly sinister character of the maid (Nea Cornér), who encompasses both manservants, Lane and Merriman, while also filling the role of a Greek chorus and a puppeteer who manoeuvres the characters on, off and around the stage. While this is an interesting take, at times it feels like a bit of a distraction – due in no small part to Nea Cornér, whose performance is completely compelling throughout. The problem is that the production is already so rich in detail that we have more than enough to look at and absorb, and by adding another element to it, we find ourselves at times not knowing quite where to look.

The cast are uniformly excellent, taking recognisable characters and breathing fresh life into them; particular highlights among many include Glykeria Dimou’s feisty teenager Cecily and Pinar Öğün’s perfectly poised Gwendolen. The actors are all clearly enjoying themselves with Wilde’s use of language, and this in turn allows the audience to hear the familiar text afresh. Some of the more famous lines are played down – Lady Bracknell’s appalled exclamation of “a handbag?!” is delivered by Ece Özdemiroğlu as little more than an incredulous and even mildly amused murmur – while others are elevated to new significance through deliberate mispronunciation and subsequent gentle correction by the rest of the cast.

Though it at times veers towards trying to do too much, this unique new take on The Importance of Being Earnest certainly hits the mark in terms of both entertainment and intrigue. It’s also a very polished and precise production, where every aspect has clearly been given careful consideration – which in turn leaves the audience with plenty to think about on the ride home and beyond.

The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants is at Tower Theatre until 18th January.

Review: Precious Little at Brockley Jack Theatre

A short play with a lot to talk about, Madeleine George’s Precious Little places language and communication under the microscope. Brodie (Jenny Delisle) is a linguistics researcher who’s expecting her first child, but when the amniocentesis test reveals there might be a problem, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her much younger girlfriend Dre (Jessica Kinsey) – who can’t understand why Brodie, now 42, wants a baby in the first place – offers little comfort, so Brodie looks for answers from two unlikely sources: Cleva, an elderly research subject whose language is on the verge of dying out, and the Ape, a famous talking gorilla at the local zoo (both Deborah Maclaren).

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The various elements of the story at first don’t seem to quite knit together and the end comes as a bit of a surprise, offering the audience little in the way of closure. But when you look back on it, language is the constant in every encounter within the play – whether it’s the gabbling tourists from whom 100 words carry less value than the Ape’s dignified silence, or the unfortunate choice of language from Brodie’s well-meaning doctor, which immediately put her on the defensive. Cleva’s revival of a language she hasn’t spoken for years brings back memories of another life, to the alarm of her overprotective daughter, and Brodie’s choice boils down to a simple question: can she live with a child who might not have the ability to communicate?

Under the direction of Kate Bannister, all three actors give excellent performances. As Brodie, Jenny Delisle succeeds in the difficult job of turning a woman who often seems cold, scientific and verging on arrogant into a sympathetic character whose dilemma the audience can sympathise with. Jessica Kinsey gives a masterclass in multi-roling, playing no less than five characters (many more if you count each of the zoogoers separately), each of them with a lot of lines – if not always a huge amount to say. This abundance of roles means she’s on stage for pretty much the whole play, with little time for significant costume changes, and yet every character she plays is completely distinct from the rest. Deborah Maclaren, in contrast, has relatively few lines, but makes every single one of them count. As the Ape she gives a meticulously observed physical performance; it really is like watching a gorilla at the zoo. Hearing her inner monologue means we can’t help but feel sympathy for this dignified, intelligent creature who’s expected to perform day in day out for the entertainment of impatient and insensitive humans.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The production’s set and lighting design (Karl Swinyard and Ben Jacobs) skilfully contrast the clinical surroundings of Brodie’s office and various medical appointments with the artificial natural environment of the Ape’s zoo enclosure. Despite frequently involving a change of costume and setting the scene changes never feel overly long, due largely to Julian Starr’s increasingly urgent music, which helps maintain the pace and atmosphere of the production throughout.

At one point in the play, Brodie is offended when her doctor tactlessly suggests that linguistics isn’t a science – but it’s an easy mistake to make. We don’t tend to give the words we use every day as much thought as we should, and this play highlights how crucial language is not only in our interactions but also in our identities. It may be called Precious Little, but this thought-provoking play has plenty to say.

Review: Chinglish at Park Theatre

Bad Chinese to English translations are the stuff of internet legend. My personal favourite sign – ‘Do not Disturb, Tiny Grass is Dreaming’ – sadly doesn’t make it into David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, but there are still plenty of hearty belly laughs to go around in this comedy with hidden depths about an American businessman trying to make it in China.

Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) has spotted an opportunity for his Cleveland-based firm – supplying signage for a new arts centre in Guiyang. The only problem? He doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Employing the services of Peter (Duncan Harte), a fluent Chinese-speaking British “consultant”, Daniel pitches his proposal to a government minister (Lobo Chan) and finds himself getting along a little too well with vice-minister Xi Yan (Candy Ma). Chaos, confusion and rumours of corruption ensue… but who really has the upper hand – and why?

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

A strong cast, directed by Andrew Keates, handle the bilingual script with ease, with Candy Ma and Duncan Harte particularly impressive as they slip effortlessly from Mandarin to English and back again. Gyuri Sarossy, meanwhile, hits exactly the right note as the bewildered Daniel, his early cockiness fading rapidly as he begins to realise what he’s got himself into, and his later scenes with Ma are loaded with an unexpected emotional intensity.

Though a good proportion of the script is in Chinese, the audience never feels lost in translation, thanks to the provision of surtitles throughout (though this does sometimes mean turning away from the actor who’s speaking in order to keep up with what they’re saying). This gives us an advantage over most of the characters, who only speak either English or Chinese, and allows us to appreciate the humour in both the hilariously inept efforts of the Chinese interpreters and Daniel’s fumbling attempts to speak Mandarin himself. There’s no question of taking sides; the good-natured humour targets both East and West equally, warding off any accusations of prejudice in either direction.

Ironically, from our privileged position of bilingualism, one of the hardest scenes to follow is mostly in English (in fact it’s so tricky that we share the characters’ jubilation and relief when they finally understand each other). And it’s here that Hwang moves away from light comedy, and into something altogether more complex. This isn’t just an opportunity for us all to have a good laugh at people making language mistakes – and just as well; as funny as these undoubtedly are, a solid two hours of them might be a bit exhausting.

Where the play really gets interesting is in its exploration of the fundamental difference in business, political and cultural practices between East and West. As business consultant Peter discovers to his cost, sometimes even being able to speak the local lingo like a native isn’t enough; in such vastly different cultures, a word that’s directly translated from one language to another can still mean something completely different.

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Just as fascinating as the script is Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set, which begins as a simple panelled wall but then unfolds like origami (yes I know, wrong country) to reveal hidden doors, windows, a restaurant kitchen and even a bedroom. As a result, each scene change offers an intriguing opportunity to see what it’ll do – and where it’ll take us – next.

Chinglish is a lot of fun, with some great comic performances and a few unexpected twists and turns that prove worth waiting for. But it’s also a genuinely interesting play to watch, from both a linguistic and business perspective. Not everyone ends up getting what they want (in fact, make that hardly anyone), but the bittersweet conclusion comes with some important lessons for everyone involved – and lends new meaning to Daniel’s own top tip to “always bring your own translator”.

And if you just enjoy laughing at funny Chinese signs – well, it’s got plenty of those too.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉